Rome is often called the Eternal City, and generations of filmmakers from around the world have sought to capture its enduring beauty on screen.
The new film The Great Beauty is the latest, a picture that casts Rome itself in the title role. After playing to critical acclaim in Europe, it opens in American cinemas this month. The film is also Italy's official entry at this season's Academy Awards.
The Great Beauty is a double-edged portrait, out to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of modern Rome.
A World Of Distractions
The film opens with a rooftop party to end all parties: a flashy crowd of the city's sexiest and richest, grooving and grinding above Rome's skyline. When the man of the hour — Jep Gambardella, journalist and onetime novelist, turning 65 — makes his entrance, he's tailored to a fault and surrounded by women.
Director Paolo Sorrentino says this flashy opening is meant to hurl you right into the Roman high life.
"I believe the beginning of movies has to be a breakthrough," he says. "I wanted to create a party scene that's unforgettable, knowing that party scenes are very complicated for directors. We worked a lot, we worked many days. I picked each face one by one."
As the party swirls around him, Jep steps out of the crowd, lights his cigarette and speaks into the camera, reflecting on the one great novel he wrote 40 years ago and the life of substance he's avoided ever since.
"I wanted to make it very clear from the very start that the world we were going to enter is a world made of a people who seek to constantly distract themselves, in order not to dedicate themselves seriously and sensibility to real life," Sorrentino says.
As the party ends, Sorrentino's camera pans out to reveal Rome just before dawn. New York University professor Stefano Albertini says it's the image of an ancient city at peace in a way the film's characters are not.
"It's probably one of the few times of the day when the city is almost a desert," Albertini says. "Because even in the middle of the night there are always lots of people around — but then at dawn you have that metaphysical sensation that you are in an empty city that is in between something."
And as the main character walks home in that early light, he pauses to look at children beginning their day in a convent, the camera lingering to relish the details of the marble columns and arches of ancient buildings.
'The Sacred And The Profane'
Peter Becker, who is releasing the film in the U.S., says Sorrentino's Rome demands that kind of introspection.
"We're constantly reminded of this glorious architecture and statuary, and of the fantastic legacy of ancient Rome that surrounds you just by being in Rome," he says. "And so how can you not measure yourself against that on a day-to-day basis in a certain way? It's just your environment."
In addition to stunning tableaus of buildings and light, Sorrentino uses classical music to convey the grandeur of Rome and to contrast it with the party jams that soundtrack the decadence.
"By having the Vatican within it, Rome is seen as the center of the sacred world," Sorrentino says. "But it is also the city where the profane, sin and vulgarity, are everyday occurrences. Through music, I wanted to show the coexistence of these two sides of the city, the sacred and the profane."
A National Tradition
This certainly isn't the first film to explore those uniquely Roman contradictions, the sins and the saints. Sorrentino follows in a line of post-war Italian filmmakers who sought to contrast the poverty and glamour of Rome, to puncture the image of movie stars riding around fountains on Vespas.
Like Federico Fellini, Sorrentino makes his characters almost caricatures. He inserts strange, surprising moments into the narrative. In one of them, a chorus of singers perform above a fountain as Japanese tourists try to capture the beauty on their cameras. Suddenly, one of them drops dead.
"That character, a tourist ... is seeking beauty and ends up being overwhelmed, overtaken by that beauty," Sorrentino explains. "Beauty is a fleeting experience that does not last. All things that do not last hurt us, and metaphorically, beauty can kill us."
And that's a kind of commentary on the pursuit of pleasure that characterized the Rome of former Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi — a city of extremes, rife with corruption, excess, hedonism and ugliness.
But Albertini says The Great Beauty isn't just an attack on Berlusconi. It's also an indictment of the intellectuals and artists who retreated from responsibility in those years.
"The fact that Sorrentino decides that his character moves around the circles of leftist Rome, and that in these leftist circles, the emptiness is as big as it is in the circles of the right says much about his personal evaluation that I happen to agree with," Albertini says.
"It's not only a problem of an ugly right. ... It's also the problem of an empty left."
According to Albertini, The Great Beauty marks "the end of a creative crisis," not for a single person, but "what seems to be the creative crisis of an entire country."
The main character, in any case, finds a path out of his own creative crisis, a path beyond the nightlife, and one that renews his faith in Rome's great beauty.